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What is Excellence

April 16, 2011


      Apparently Ricky Bobby pisses it, but what is excellence?  About a week ago, I read an excerpt from professor La Vaque-Manty’s book The Playing fields of Eton.  In this excerpt the professor was trying to define what excellence is.  First, he considers a relatively straight forward analysis of excellence: those who do the best are the most excellent, and people diminish in terms of excellence from there.  Next, he considers meaningful competition.  The word “excellence” by itself is arbitrary.  When competitors that all seek the same goal line up against one another, and one obtains that goal, excellence is defined.  The professor contends that this is one way to look at meaningful competition.  He then defines meaningful competition in another, perhaps better, way: as something “determined by social conventions, which, in turn, reflect social values” (La Vaque-Manty p. 150)

       After reading this text, I agreed with the notion that meaningful competition can at least be one way to define excellence.  I realized that this had some huge implications.  This meant that social values define excellence.  After thinking about this idea for a while, I realized that I agreed.  Something only becomes excellence when social values say it is.  For example, there are many YouTube videos that showcase people with strange talents; however, many people would not consider this excellence.  One reason for this is the people with these talents do not have any meaningful competition.  Since these people are not considered to be “excellent,” it is unlikely they will get meaningful competition.  People would rather go into endeavors where they have a chance at excellence.  The only way for these people to achieve excellence is for social values to change.  If this happens more people would participate and meaningful completion could be possible.

       Defining “excellence” then, is only possible if you are defining it at a certain time for a certain place.  Social conventions change over time and so does the concept of excellence.  Women at one point were incapable of holding excellence; this is no longer the case.  It is a constantly changing term that is defined by the people.  One reason why women’s sports get so frustrated at low attendance is much more difficult to hold excellence, if there are few people watching.  Social values are much harder to change if people are not watching you compete.

       Excellence then, will remain a vague term.  One that is constantly changing due to time and place.  A good example of this is curling in the Olympics.  I certainly don’t think this is an example of excellence and I bet many of you do not either.  At some point or place though, someone must have thought that this sport was a good demonstration of excellence as it is in the Olympics.  The bottom line is defining excellence is very hard by nature.  The best way to define the term may be as something done by a person in such a way as the public noticed and was awed by it.

La Vaque-Manty, Mika. The Playing Fields of Eton: Equality and Excellence in Modern Meritocracy. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.      



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